Protecting the Biodiversity of Northeast 

Context: In the recent case of Re: Cleanliness of Umiam Lake versus State of Meghalaya (2023), the division Bench in its order, stated that “In the absence of any other employment opportunities and in the name of promoting tourism, the natural beauty of the State should not be destroyed”.

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  • The Northeast India comprises of eight states namely Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.
  • The region shares its international border with Bhutan in the north, Myanmar in the east and Bangladesh in the west.
  • The region is the transition zone between Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese geographical regions and a meeting point of the Himalayan Mountains and Peninsular India. 
  • The Northeast Zone receives one of the highest rainfalls in the world and is a top humid region of the country which makes this biogeographic region rich in flora and fauna with unique features and endemism.
  • Most of the states in the Northeast has an indigenous ethnic group and depends very much on forest resources for life sustenance. Food, shelter, and medicine are mostly acquired from the forests.
  • The altitudinal variations and climate variability determine the pattern of vegetation in the region
  • The major forest types in the region are Tropical Evergreen Forests, Tropical Semi-Evergreen Forests, Tropical Moist Deciduous Forests.

Biodiversity Hotspot To qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, a region must meet two strict criteria: Endemism: It must have at least 1,500 vascular plants as endemics — which is to say, it must have a high percentage of plant life found nowhere else on the planet. A hotspot, in other words, is irreplaceable. Threatened: It must have 30% or less of its original natural vegetation. In other words, it must be threatened.

Northeast a Biodiversity Hotspot

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North-eastern India (except Brahmaputra Valley) along with Andaman group of Islands is a part of Indo Burma biodiversity hotspot along with three more such biodiversity hotspots in India, i.e., Indian Himalaya (excluding Trans Himalaya) in the Himalayan biodiversity hotspot.

Challenges to Conservation of Biodiversity in Northeast 

  • Land tenure issues: Land tenure systems vary widely among different North-Eastern states. The complexity in land ownership and tenurial rights makes it difficult for survey, demarcation and consolidation of land. Therefore, cadastral survey and land demarcation are completely absent in the hill areas of northeast.
  • Dichotomy in Forest Administration:
    • Forests in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Nagaland mainly belong to private individuals, communities, and clans. 
    • Their ownership is safeguarded by the sixth schedule of the Indian Constitution, making state and national regulations inapplicable.
    • Due to inadequate enforcement personnel, district council acts have limited efficacy. 
    • Consequently, many northeast community forests lack management and law enforcement. 
  • Equity issues in natural resources and diversity management: Unequal distribution of land resources is responsible for increasing dependence on forests by certain sections of society leading to degradation of biodiversity in the region. 
  • Inter-departmental coordination: lack of a comprehensive and holistic approach which addresses the interdependent threats to biodiversity. E.g., use of diclofenac leading to death of Vultures.
  • Smuggling across the international border: The illicit felling of trees and timber smuggling across the international borders has been the most important cause of forest degradation in border areas of northeast.
  • Shifting cultivation: Unregulated shifting cultivation by the local tribal populations has been a major threat to sustainable diversity management.
  • Inter-state border dispute: Most of the border areas in northeast are forest lands and because of boundary disputes, such lands are often declared as ‘no man’s land’ and hence, do not come under any form of management. This leads to the degradation of diversity in such areas.
  • Insurgency: The long insurgency problem in some states such as Assam and Tripura have considerable impact on diversity conservation. 
  • Deforestation and Degradation: Cutting down trees is the primary issue faced by various wildlife resources. With deforestation, the forest cover is disappearing gradually.
  • Encroachment: Encroachment of forestland for the developmental purposes and creation of infrastructure e.g., tourism infrastructure is a serious threat to forests and their conservation. This is not only leading to the loss of the forest areas, but also of wildlife.
  • Forest Fire: Forest fires are now common and have a terrible impact on the forest cover of the Northeast. Wildlife is also affected negatively by this issue.
  • Commercial Plantation: This is leading to the homogenisation of biodiversity landscape.
  • Human-Wildlife Conflict: Natural corridors of movement for the animals are not well made and protected which leads to regular encounters and conflict between humans and wildlife.
  • Replacement of Indigenous Species with Exotic Species: Due to increasing demand of food and other products exotic species are bought in. These species give high yield thus eradicate the use of local species. E.g., in Tripura more than 280 plants have been introduced to increase the yield, In Mizoram exotic fish species have been introduced.
  • Bad Policy Making in Infrastructure Development: Due to lack of proper information, coordination and planning the construction of infrastructure has become a great threat to biodiversity.
    • Mining in these areas for coal, minerals and oils has also caused a reduction of the species richness.
    • e.g.,
      • In Arunachal Pradesh a species called Sapria himalayana has become extinct due to the development of roads. 
      • Construction near Eagle nest foothill is causing the extinction of some species of plants. A rare species of epiphytic plant called Agapetes is also in danger.
  • Immigration and Unintended Consequences: Immigrants from outside are changing the beliefs and customs of the native people. E.g., The sacred grooves of Meghalaya and Manipur are decreasing due to the reducing beliefs of people

Initiatives taken for Conservation 

  • Protected areas: Under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 government has made provision for national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and other types of reserve, through which many parks and sanctuaries have been established in Northeast region. E.g., Kaziranga National Park.
  • International Cooperation: India has signed or became part of many international initiative that conserve the biodiversity in northeast region e.g., UN Convention on Biodiversity.
  • Role Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA): MHA has taken many initiatives to resolve the border dispute between the state and reduce the insurgency in the region which in turn created the available space for the conservation of biodiversity. E.g., resolution of dispute between Assam and Mizoram.
  • Role of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs): Many NGOs in northeastern region has promoted the conservation of biodiversity in the region e.g., “Hargila army”, a group of rural women in the Indian state of Assam worked for the protection of the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) locally known as Hargila.
  • Promotion of Organic: States like Sikkim which became completely organic by reducing the use of chemicals in agriculture have also decreased the associated negative effects on biodiversity. 
  • Institutional Measures: Botanical Survey of India, Zoological Survey of India, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources and many other central government organizations are directly involved in inventorization, conservation and propagation of biodiversity.
  • Role of Judiciary: Judiciary in many cases took the initiative for the conservation of biodiversity e.g., National Green Tribunal (NGT), took cognizance of the environmental degradation caused by coal mining in Meghalaya and issued several orders to address the issue.
  • Community Efforts: Sacred forests of Meghalaya i.e., Law Lyngdoh, Law Niam and Law Kyntang and sacred groves of Manipur, including Nag Vans are the examples of forest management practices based on the traditional religious beliefs. 
  • Notified Forest Areas: The government owned forests have been classified into Reserved Forests (RF), Protected Forests (PF) and Proposed Reserve Forests (PRF) to protect and control their management and rational exploitation. Activities harmful to forest flora and fauna have been prohibited in these areas.
  • Policies and Legislation: 
    • For forest areas, the National Forest Policy of 1988 has been adopted in the region. To ensure policy implementation, appropriate forest legislation and instructions have been brought in. 
    • The central legislations such as Indian Forest Act, 1927; the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1972 have been enacted in the region. 
    • Besides, many state legislations are in force in each state for regulation of forest extraction.
  • Education for Biodiversity Conservation: Apart from in-situ conservation efforts, each state has tried for ex-situ conservation such as Captive breeding programme on selected animals such as leopard cat, binturong, spotted deer and primates.
  • Conservation Hot Spots: Many projects with specific objectives of biodiversity survey and conservation were undertaken in different north-eastern states to survey and identify biodiversity rich locations referred as “Conservation Hot Spots (CHS)” in the region with funding support from WWF – India and other funding agencies.  
  • Joint Forest Management (JFM): The programme of JFM has been adopted in 7 states (except Meghalaya) of the ecoregion to regenerate, protect and manage the degraded forest lands with the involvement of local communities with or without the help of NGOs.
  • Afforestation Programmes: There are state specific programmes for bringing the vacant and Jhum fallow lands belonging to small and marginal farmers under vegetation cover. E.g., the “Apna van scheme” in Arunachal Pradesh and “Angan Ban Prakalpa” in Tripura.

The Northeastern biodiversity hotspot, rich in species diversity, draws significant tourism due to its natural beauty, boosting the economy. However, human activities are rapidly depleting this precious area’s biodiversity. Without conservation efforts, this natural treasure will vanish quickly. So, the government, while increasing the development efforts in these areas, should also consider conservation of biodiversity leading to sustainable development in the region. 

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